Saturday, November 15, 2014

Is There Also A Good Reading Fairy?

A week ago, I wrote about the Suck Fairy, a name for that sad experience that occurs when we re-read a book we liked quite a lot sometime in our past and find that it now sucks. There could be all kinds of reasons this could happen, all of which could come under the umbrella of the Suck Fairy visiting the book while we were gone and filling it with suck.

But what about when we re-read a book from our past, one that we weren't all that crazy about, and find that somehow it has improved? Did the Good Reading Fairy come while our backs were turned and fill that bad puppy with reading goodness?

I thought of this after reading Why Everyone Should Re-read the Books You Were Forced to Read When You Were a Teenager at The Owl's Skull.  Jessica McCort recalls reading Huckleberry Finn as a junior or senior in high school. She says she hated "this book with every single fiber of my being. ... I didn't understand its humor. I didn't understand much of the political environment in which it was embroiled. I hated the fact that women/girls didn't seem to come off extremely well... I thought Huck was a pretty horrible character, and Tom Sawyer ... don't even get me started on him."

She re-read it during her junior year of college. "...on the second go around, I loved the book. I thought it was uproariously funny. I was pierced by both its humor and its humanity (I still hated the last several chapters, I have to say, but for very different reasons than why I didn't like the book when I was in high school. And I still didn't like Tom, but I came around to Huck)."

Jessica then offers a list of books she didn't care for in the past and that she'd be willing to give another shot. They all appear to be classics. And, as she said, they were all assigned reading.

Jessica's post led me to mull on a couple of points.
  1. Somewhere in my reading these last few months (I apologize that I cannot recall where) someone raised the question of what society gains by forcing teenagers to read classics they are known, as a group, to dislike. I focused on Jessica's Huckleberry Finn example because I've heard before that it's not embraced by teenagers. I didn't care for it much, myself, when I had to read at least part of it as a teenager and can recall some scenes I enjoyed when I was older, but even then it's one of those books that I'm glad to have knowledge of because of its impact on what came after it, but that's it. In fact, I wonder if Twain/Clemens isn't an author who is beloved these days more because of his reputation than because of enjoyment or real knowledge of his work. And, let's be honest, was my son the only teenager who spent all his freshman or sophomore year of high school dreading having to read Shakespeare in the spring? No, Shakespeare didn't end up becoming a favorite writer.
  2. When as an adult we re-read a classic we disliked as a teenager, was the first reading and probably instruction a factor in the Good Reading Fairy experience? Or is it simply that at that later time of life we were experienced enough to appreciate the book, period, whether we had some earlier knowledge of the book or not? The earlier reading was meaningless, maybe worse than meaningless since disliking a work at fifteen could mean we won't even consider reading it at twenty-five or thirty or fifty-five.
Twelve or thirteen years ago, I attended a symposium I remember nothing about except that the professor explained that until the end of the nineteenth century literature was not part of a standard American school curriculum. Rhetoric, the study of speech and writing, was more common. Literature became part of the "English" curriculum in order to assimilate children of foreign families, to teach them to value what Americans valued, the works of authors writing in English. (This knowledge left me a little horrified about having been an English major in college, but let's not get into that.)

What's the point of "English" class these days?
  • Is it to insist that young people  read The Odyssey, Julius Caesar, Moby Dick, or any of the  classics Jessica McCourt recalls reading and disliking? Should we be holding up the works of dead, white, English speaking writers as having some value above all others? And if we should, is forcing adolescents to read this stuff working?  
  • Is it to encourage life-long reading so that young people become literate citizens capable of understanding writing in all fields of study, thus making them better able to make decisions affecting their lives? Will the works of dead, white, English speaking writers achieve that end?
Those people who believe knowledge of the classics is essential may fear that if young people aren't forced to read them, whether they're at an age when they can appreciate them or not, they risk never being exposed. There's no knowing what they'll study in college or be attracted to as adults. But if pre-eighteen-year-olds just can't recognize the wit in Huckleberry Finn and how it fits into the historical context in which it was written, or have enough reading background to recognize its influence on American literature, will their exposure to it do them any good?

How many people who disliked Huck in their youth go on to read it again? The Good Reading Fairy can fill classics with all kinds of reading goodness. If we never re-read those books we didn't like the first time around, we'll never find it.


tanita✿davis said...

I share your horror about having been an English major... NO WONDER the dead white male curricula is so hard to budge!!!!

The more I read and hear, the more I think the Ford School of Assembly Line Education needs to be totally overhauled; our values, please God, have changed since the 19th century, and what we convey and how we convey it needs to also change.

I remember loving KIM by Kipling. Rereading it now? Still a romp, but oh, Rudyard. You were such a racist. Sometimes the Suck Fairy seems a more likely visitor than the Good Reading Fairy.

Gail Gauthier said...

Yeah, I could go on at length about how I, the grandchild of immigrants and daughter of a man with an eighth-grade education who spoke English with a bit of an accent all his life, ignorantly studied a field that was designed to get my ancestors to toe the line.

In her essay on the Suck Fairy, Jo Walton says that children are great at finding the fun in a story and ignoring other things, particularly the educational stuff. I hope they're good at ignoring racism, too.